By: Ellis Nassour
British-born director/choreographer Warren Carlyle says, “Every day I pinch myself. It’s a wonder I’m not black and blue. I still can’t believe it’s not the dream I spent my life dreaming.”
He’s gone through several breathless months leading up to two recent huge openings: working with director Scott Ellis as choreographer for Roundabout’s smash revival of Cy Coleman and Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s On the Twentieth Century; and Radio City Music Hall’s New York Spring Spectacular – running through May 3, for which he’s director/choreographer.
The last five years have been filled with great career rewards, including winning Tony and Drama Desk Awards. “It has been an immensely satisfying working on Broadway,” Carlyle says. “My life’s so wonderful, I’m truly blessed to be here and doing what I love. Winning the Tony was a really big deal; and working at Radio City Music Hall with the world-famous Rockettes is a big deal. I come to the Christmas Spectacular every year and cheer them. Those things make a difference in my life.
“Radio City is a magical place,” he continues. “It’s the perfect place to create this family spectacle and love letter to the city.” Referring to the Hall’s enormous stage with its four elevator platforms, he adds, “It’s been fun for me to paint on this giant canvas. It’s very different from Broadway and what I’m used to. It’s like being a kid on Christmas morning!”
Carlyle says the experience is the culmination of a life-long dream. “I’m accomplishing my goals. My bucket list’s getting shorter, yet I feel like I’m just beginning.”
He has high praise for his cast beyond the 36-strong troupe of high-kickers. Tony winner Laura Benanti “is just incredible. She’s a superstar. Her voice is beautiful. She’s funny, smart, and sexy. I’m excited she’s returning [from TV] to the New York stage in this way.” Emmy-winning choreographer Derek Hough’s “success isn’t by accident. He’s not only charismatic and talented, but a hard worker. Everyone knows he can dance [Dancing with the Stars] but the surprise might be that he can really sing. He and Laura have wonderful chemistry.”
The show produced by award-winning film powerhouse Harvey Weinstein and Madison Square Garden [Finding Neverland] under creative director Tony winner Diane Paulus [Finding Neverland; recent Hair and Porgy and Bess revivals] and Randy Weiner’s auspices for an estimated $25-million is “inspired by the magic of Spring – a time when people fall in love,” is a 90-minute, high-energy whirlwind musical celebration [with a 28-piece orchestra under music supervisor Patrick Vaccariello] “about the energy, people, passion, and promise” that make New York City so spectacular.
“‘Spectacular’ became our go word,” laughs Carlyle. “We wanted to find something spectacular in every location we chose to stage.”
You can see where the money was spent. There’re the haute couture costumes and the immersive design which places the entire audience in Grand Central Station waiting for trains to depart on an adventure involving animatronic versions of the Statue of Liberty, Jose de Creeft’s Central Park bronze Alice in Wonderland sculpture, and the literary lion guardians of New York Public Library voiced by such stars as Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Fey, and Amy Peohler]. The eye-popping opening number [staged by Mia Michaels [Finding Neverland; TV’s So You Think You Can Dance] has the Rockettes as commuters in costumes Sally Bowles would wear at the Kit Kat Club just as she exited a spaceship from Mars or made the winning shot at a Knicks game.
Spain is not the only place where it rains on the plains – in a dazzling sequence, Hough and Carlyle replicate Gene Kelly’s showstopping moment in the film classic Singin’ in the Rain.
The state-of-the-art technology includes 3-D, wristbands that light up to single special effects such as the Met’s Degas dancers leaping off the canvas and materializing onstage, moving LED screens, and acrobatic flying. A fashion sequence has the Rockettes on the runway in creations by Diane von Furstenberg, Isaac Mizrahi, and Zac Posen.
Though it’s all hard to ignore, it’s the cast that adds the needed human touch. In addition to Benanti and Hough, there’s veteran TV and stage star Lenny Wolpe and one of Carlyle’s featured dancers from After Midnight, Jared Grimes.
[Trivia: Wolpe, a vet of Bullets Over Broadway, The Drowsy Chaperone, and, among many others, Wicked, played Max Detweiler during the run of the 1998 Sound of Music revival that starred Rebecca Luker and later, in her Broadway debut, Benanti.]
Regarding the Rockettes, Carlyle notes that the season’s dancers are a balance of those who’ve danced with the troupe and newbies. Auditions for the show and rehearsals began in August. “It’s been endless, a lifetime.”
Carlyle admits he was concerned about the vast size of the Music Hall with its 6,000 seats plus seats dwarfing the human element. “I knew this year would be a big learning curve for me and that’s one of the things I really worked at. If I felt we had a problem, I found a different way to approach it. Often, I was able to solve that by pumping up the number by adding more people.”
In addition to the Spring Spectacular, Carlyle worked with director Scott Ellis on the smash Roundabout revival of On the Twentieth Century. “Two openings within days of each other were rather challenging,” he admits. “I loved the show and working with Scott. Can there be a better show for this time of year when we’re emerging from that horrible winter? It’s fun, and Kristin, Peter, Andy, and the entire wonderful cast are loving it. It’s perfect musical comedy – and the fact that I could make a show dance that has traditionally never danced was exhilarating.”
As for how Warren Carlyle, 40, came to be a choreographer-director, lay it on those Golden Age Hollywood musicals. When he was 10, his working-class parents outside Norwich, northeast of Cambridge, took him to the city to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
“That’s how I got hooked,” he laughs. “I was mesmerized. It became my dream to dance. Fred, so debonair in top hat, white tie, and tails, flower in lapel, and cane. He was so smooth, he made it look so easy. That huge Irving Berlin ‘Piccolini’ sequence with hundreds of people, or so it seemed, singing and dancing! I was on the edge of my seat. From then on, I was enamored with Hollywood musicals.”
While still in high school, Warren Carlyle became obsessed with tap. In spite of what he was achieving in sports, where he excelled in swim and track, the addition of dance to his extracurricular repertoire proved quite strange to his mates. “I was bullied. It was awful, hurtful, and tough, but I discovered the best way to handle it was to ignore it. Somehow I had the mind to find my inner strength to do my own thing.”
Carlyle says he knew exactly what that was. “In my mind, I was already out there doing it. I studied, danced, and performed.” It didn’t come as a shock to his parents when, upon graduating high school, he announced he was London-bound to attend ballet school. “I couldn’t wait,” he notes, “I had to go!”
He began dancing right out of university. Carlyle came up the ranks choreographing such musicals as Scrooge, the Sondheim revue Moving On, Pageant and The Goodbye Girl.
His first West End job came in 1989, when he was cast as Alonzo in the West End company of Cats. “I am very tall, which I considered an asset,” he explains. “Since I towered over everyone, choreographers put me in the back or middle.” He loved dancing but felt the urge “to take a leap forward.”
Then, he was hand-picked by Susan Stroman to be her associate choreographer on Trevor Nunn’s 1997 Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma, starring Hugh Jackman.
“I not only knew who Susan was,” he notes, “but had long wanted to work with her. It was quite the honor to be chosen as her assistant. It went beyond that. I was inspired by her, and still am. She’s generous beyond belief. She taught me everything I know. She’s the master. If there’s one person who changed my life, it’s Susan.”
“Warren has a great passion for theater,” observes Stroman, “and comes armed with a tremendous knowledge of stage craft. He knows how to get the best out of people, always garnering their trust and respect. I’m so pleased with all his deserved success.”
“Working with Warren is a complete joy in every way,” says Jackman. “We became great friends during Oklahoma! It was clear even then that Warren had big dreams, and a real joie de vivre. He was a born choreographer/director, and everyone knew he was going places.”
It turned out to be New York and Broadway, where Carlyle followed Stroman to assist on The Producers and the subsequent Broadway revival of Nunn’s Oklahoma!
“I loved what I was doing, but wanted to be more creative,” he says. The short-lived adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities marked his Broadway debut as director/choreographer.
Jackman chose Carlyle to helm and choreograph 2011 Back on Broadway. “Warren has a way of bringing out the best in me and everyone around him,” states Jackman. “His energy is infectious. Warren has the rare ability of having confidence in his vision and the extraordinary ability to listen to everyone around him. He pushes everyone to be their best.”
City Center Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel chose Carlyle to direct and choreograph the concert production of Finian’s Rainbow. They worked closely to retool the staging for Broadway, which earned Carlyle a DD choreography nomination.
Three years ago, Viertel met with Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis to discuss reimagining Duke Ellington’s revues of the late 20s at Harlem’s legendary nightspot, the Cotton Club. That led to Carlyle helming and choreographing Cotton Club Parade for the inaugural co-production of City Center’s Off-Center series.
“It sounded exciting since I’d always been a huge fan of the Duke’s,” states Carlyle. “There’s nothing like his music. It’s so rich that it’s language to me; and so evocative that I as I listen choreography pops through my head.”
There was the mega success of the seven-week 2012 holiday engagement on Broadway of John Rando’s production of Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul’s musical adaptation of the cult film A Christmas Story, which he choreographed.
Carlyle explains he develops ideas “by spending lots of time thinking about what I’m going to do before I do it. I work for hours alone because Mom taught me never to go to someone’s home empty-handed. So, I never walk into a meeting without having something to offer. I feel an obligation to bring ideas – a piece of music, a sketch, a video of an idea I’ve worked up.”
Cotton Club Parade was the seed for the expanded, enhanced, and rechristened After Midnight. Carlyle won Tony and DDs for his choreography.
In the end, Warren Carlyle has never doubted what brought him across the pond. “It was all about Broadway’s dancers. The very best are here. I wanted to be surrounded by dancers who are so much better than I am so I could absorb it all. I’ve achieved that in spades.”
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